Reaper drones crucial to US keeping eyes on ISIS

With US President Donald Trump yearning for a reduction of US troops in the region, the Reaper may become the main tool in the war against terrorist groups.
Sunday 23/09/2018
A US airman guides a US Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone as it lands on the runway at Kandahar Airfield. (Reuters)
Future of warfare. A US airman guides a US Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone as it lands on the runway at Kandahar Airfield. (Reuters)

One of the most important tools employed by US forces in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) and like-minded groups in Iraq and Syria is the MQ-9 Reaper drone, the latest version of which was introduced into service in 2017.

The Reaper, a remotely piloted aircraft, can be armed with precision weapons and used for military strikes or, equally important, used for intelligence gathering and reconnaissance. It has played both roles in the war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria and against al-Qaeda in Yemen. The newest Reaper model can fly at altitudes of more than 15,000 metres and has a range of 1,800km.

Considering the Reaper’s prominent role in operations against terror groups, the Pentagon is understandably eager to maintain access to regional bases from which the Reaper can be deployed. A report by the RAND Corporation explored the challenges of finding such bases in what the report terms the “post-ISIL” regional environment, using another acronym for the Islamic State. RAND regularly prepares a wide range of analytical studies under contract with the US Department of Defence.

The RAND report starts with the assumption that ISIS’s defeat on the battlefield in Syria and Iraq does not mean the group is no longer a threat but notes that “what comes next is unclear.”

What is clear, however, is that the conflict against ISIS is entering a new phase, one that “will be characterised by profoundly different political dynamics because ISIL and the operations against it will no longer play such a central organising role in the region,” the RAND report said.

In other words, as long as ISIS was a shared concern of just about all of the region’s governments, the United States could secure base access for the Reaper. As that concern fades, however, and is replaced by other issues, base access may be lost.

The report’s authors expressed specific concern about Iraq and fear that internal political developments there could lead to the curtailment or termination of US access to Iraqi bases now that the physical threat posed by ISIS’s so-called caliphate has been removed.

As a result, the US Central Command, which is responsible for US military activities in the Middle East and Gulf region, “must, therefore, plan for the possibility of losing access to Iraqi bases and airspace and of needing to negotiate for access to other locations,” the RAND report noted.

RAND researchers developed “sequential basing” to identify regional basing options for the Reaper in the changing environment characterised by “ever-evolving threats, shifting policy priorities and other sources of political dynamism.” RAND’s goal was to find basing options that would provide the widest area of coverage for the Reaper as well as the quickest response time, with the focus on “adversary targets” in and around Syria, the Sinai Peninsula and Yemen.

RAND researchers said that, in terms of “aeronautical geography,” the best locations for Reaper bases targeting Syria and the Sinai would be in northern Saudi Arabia, north-eastern Egypt, southern Turkey, Cyprus or Lebanon. For military strikes and reconnaissance operations in Yemen, the ideal locations would be southern Saudi Arabia or Oman. If only one option were available, however, the RAND study concluded that “Lebanon [would be] the single location of greatest benefit to basing robustness.”

One thing that the RAND study did not consider was the role that political factors play in securing base rights in the Middle East or anywhere else. Christopher Mouton, one of the study’s authors, said “we focused on aeronautical geography, which does not directly incorporate the political considerations.”

While the RAND study was intended to provide a purely technical analysis — identifying the best options in an ideal world — implementing its findings will depend on political considerations.

For example, it is hard to imagine that Hezbollah, the dominant pro-Iranian force in Lebanon and Lebanese politics, would allow the United States to establish a Reaper base in Lebanon, despite Hezbollah regarding ISIS as a mortal foe. For political considerations, a declared presence of such a US base would be controversial in most Arab countries.

The United States operates Reaper drones from Incirlik Airbase in southern Turkey but strained relations between Washington and Ankara mean this option could become problematic. The United States maintains close military relationships with both Egypt and Saudi Arabia, so those options may prove to be the best replacement locations if access to Iraqi bases is curtailed or terminated.

Maintaining the ability to strike ISIS and like-minded groups, as well as the ability to keep a close eye on the locations and movements of their fighters, will be critical to ensuring that whatever form ISIS morphs into will not come as a surprise. With US President Donald Trump yearning for a reduction of US troops in the region, the Reaper may become the main tool in the war against terrorist groups.